Led by singer, songwriter, artist, and multi-instrumentalist Pat Stolley, the Quad Cities’ The Multiple Cat – on record, at least – is a one-man studio band to which various others contribute their talents periodically. While this could be a recipe for ego-indulging, self-important disaster, The Multiple Cat’s latest album, the spring release The Golden Apple Hits, is a joyous, whimsical trifle.

(The album is on the Moline-based Plow City Record Company, which has four bands on its roster and is dedicated to releasing music from Midwestern bands.)

The sunny, light pop sparkles with confidence and a bit of the off-kilter, off-balance fun of The Flaming Lips – frequently heavy beats, sudden musical digressions that pay off wonderfully, and earthy, strange, textured instrumentation that never sounds off. But while the Lips have largely pushed weirdness for weirdness’ sake for the past 15 years, The Multiple Cat puts the songs first, and the oddity in their service.

That the album sounds casual and unmannered is a minor miracle, considering how many projects with such a high degree of insularity – one person controlling virtually all components – end up over-thought and too processed. While Stolley is clearly the life force of the outfit, and even though the album was recorded over nearly three years, its chief charms are freshness and a certain tossed-off quality.

The opening track, “Julliet,” invokes not only The Flaming Lips but the careening style-surfing of Mike Patton’s Faith No More side project Mr. Bungle (itself a child of John Zorn’s Naked City outfit), minus the metal and hardcore-jazz flourishes. Beginning with an upbeat pop piano, the song builds with gentle horns and Robert Smith-like vocals before taking some jazzy detours that cloud the original optimism. It’s the highlight of the album, which is in some ways unfortunate, but it would be hard to top under any circumstances.

“Love Leave” follows with a fanciful Flaming Lips influence, and it’s impressive that The Multiple Cat holds its own with one of alternative music’s great, lasting oddball outfits. This song would not feel out of place on that group’s fantastic The Soft Bulletin album of a few years ago.

“My Country” is simple and haunting, with guitar, vocals, and some ambient wind blowing beneath, eventually taking over and becoming something other.

The Golden Apple Hits, as its name might suggest, is a bit precious, and some listeners might find its breathy and somewhat unsung vocals difficult to bear. (Stolley’s more earnest vocals have the cloying quality of David Gilmour.) And the album can’t quite sustain itself over its 12 tracks, falling at times into a pleasant sameness when the songs aren’t quite punchy enough.

But generally, The Golden Apple Hits is a breath of fresh air. It’s a pop album, but one that challenges and pushes its audience rather than coddling it. Like The Flaming Lips or Elvis Costello, it wants to reinvent the pop song rather than regurgitate it.

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